California jail entrepreneur has checkered past
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Michael Hilton pitched himself to officials in Hardin, Mont. as a military veteran turned private sector entrepreneur, a California defense contractor with extensive government contracts who promised to turn the rural city’s empty jail into a cash cow.
Hardin’s leaders were desperate to fill the $27 million jail, which has sat empty since its 2007 completion.
So when Hilton came to town last week — wearing a military-style uniform and offering three Mercedes SUVs for use by local law enforcement — he was greeted with hugs by some grateful residents. The promise of more than 200 new jobs for a community struggling long before the recession hit had won them over.
But public documents and interviews with Hilton’s associates and legal adversaries offer a different picture, that of a convicted felon with a number of aliases, a string of legal judgments against him, two bankruptcies and a decades-long reputation for deals gone bad.
American Police Force is the company Hilton formed in March to take over the Hardin jail.
“Such schemes you cannot believe,” said Joseph Carella, an Orange County, Calif. doctor and co-defendant with Hilton in a real estate fraud case that resulted in a civil judgment against Hilton and several others.
“The guy’s brilliant. If he had been able to do honest work, he probably would have been a gazillionaire,” Carella said.
Court documents show Hilton has outstanding judgments against him in three civil cases totaling more than $1.1 million.
As for Hilton’s military expertise, including his claim to have advised forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, those interviewed knew of no such feats. Instead, Hilton was described alternately by those who know him as an arts dealer, cook, restaurant owner, land developer, loan broker and car salesman — always with a moneymaking scheme in the works.
Hilton did not return several calls seeking comment. American Police Force attorney Maziar Mafi referred questions to company spokeswoman Becky Shay.
When asked about court records detailing Hilton’s past, Shay replied, “The documents speak for themselves. If anyone has found public documents, the documents are what they are.”
Shay declined comment on Hilton’s military experience.
Al Peterson, vice president of Hardin’s Two Rivers Authority, which built the jail, declined to comment on Hilton’s legal troubles. He refused to say if he knew about Hilton’s past when the authority reached a 10-year agreement with American Police Force last month.
The deal is worth more than $2.6 million a year, according to city leaders.
Hilton has also pledged to build a $17 million military and law enforcement training center. And he’s promised to dispatch security to patrol Hardin’s streets, build an animal shelter and a homeless shelter and offer free health care to city resident’s out of the jail’s clinic.
Those additional promises were not included in the jail agreement, which remains in limbo because US Bank has so far declined to sign off on the contract. The bank is the trustee for the bonds used to fund the jail.
A US Bank spokeswoman declined to comment, but Peterson was adamant the deal would be approved.
“It’s a solid deal. That’s all I’ll say,” he said.
But a representative of a corrections advocacy group that has been critical of Hardin’s jail and has investigated Hilton’s past said city leaders dropped the ball.
“I’m amazed that city officials didn’t do basic research that would have raised significant questions about American Private Police Force and Mr. Hilton’s background,” said Alex Friedmann, vice president of the Private Corrections Institute.
Hilton, 55, uses the title “captain” when introducing himself and on his business cards. But he acknowledged it was not a military rank.
He said he is naturalized U.S. citizen and native of Montenegro. Aliases for Hilton that appear in court documents include Miodrag Dokovich, Michael Hamilton, Hristian Djokich and Michael Djokovich.
One attorney who dealt with Hilton in a fraud lawsuit referred to him as a “chameleon” and he has a reputation for winning people over with his charm.
His criminal record goes back to at least 1988, when Hilton was arrested in Santa Ana, Calif. for writing bad checks.
Beginning in 1993, Hilton spent six years in prison in California on a dozen counts of grand theft and other charges including illegal diversion of construction funds.
The charges included stealing $20,000 in a real estate swindle in which Hilton convinced an associate to give him a deed on property in Long Beach, Calif., ostensibly as collateral on a loan. Hilton turned around and sold the property to another party but was caught when the buyer contacted the original owner.
After his release, he got entangled in at least three civil lawsuits alleging fraud or misrepresentation. Those included luring investors to sink money into gold and silver collectible coins; posing as a fine arts dealer in Utah in order to convince a co uple to give him a $100,000 silver statue; and, in the case involving co-defendant Carella, seeking investors for an assisted living complex in Southern California that was never built.
Carella said he was duped into becoming a partner in the development project and that Hilton used Carella’s status as a physician to lure others into the scheme. He was described in court testimony as a “pawn” used by Hilton to lure investors.
Those involved with Hilton say he is an accomplished cook with a flair for the extravagant — wining and dining potential partners, showing up at the Utah couple’s house to negotiate for the silver statue in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
“This is the way we got taken,” said Carolyn Call of Provo, Utah, who said she gave Hilton her family’s silver statue to sell on the open market.
According to court documents, Hilton turned around and gave the statue to an attorney to pay for his services.
Two California attorneys said Wednesday that after learning of Hilton’s latest activities they planned to follow him to Montana to seek payment on the outstanding judgments against him.
“Once I know that there is an asset or some sort of funds to go after, we’ll go after it,” said Call’s attorney, Roger Naghash.
Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Santa Ana and Greg Risling in Los Angeles and researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
APF Changes Name, Logo & Website To “Diffuse Tension”
In response to growing criticism and suspicion, American Police Force has changed its name, changed its logo and altered several areas of its website in an attempt to “diffuse tension” surrounding the private paramilitary organization that wants to take over law enforcement duties while bossing a $27 million dollar detention facility in Hardin, Montana.
Following threats of legal action on behalf of the government of Serbia against APF for using a near copy of the Serbian Coat of Arms, on Sunday the logo was changed although it still remains a double-headed eagle, which is widely accepted as signifying imperial power, not something many would be comfortable with for an organization that wants to provide law enforcement.
In addition, the company has changed its name from American Police Force to American Private Police Force.
The organization has also changed the language on its website and altered the claim that it runs the U.S. Training Center, which is actually controlled by Blackwater.
The previous statement on this page read, “Our extensive tactical firearms training facility, the U.S. Training Center is capable of providing a wide range of instruction and training for all types of law enforcement organizations,” a passage that was lifted directly from the Blackwater or “Xe” website.
Following rumors of threats from Blackwater, the page now reads, “Our extensive tactical firearms training facility (ETA Spring 2010) will be capable of providing a wide range of instruction and training for all types of law enforcement organizations.”
Why APF originally claimed that they already had a training center, whereas now they say it won’t even be ready until 2010, is just another one of the bizarre mysteries surrounding the organization.
“The group’s leader, Capt. Michael Hilton said the crest was a family emblem and he used it to honor his grandfather. APF Spokeswoman Becky Shay said she is not aware of any lawsuit from the consulate and Hilton made the change as, “the quickest thing he could to diffuse tension” with the old logo. She would not elaborate on exactly what those tensions were,” reports KURL 8 News.
There has been a noticeable effort on behalf of APF over the last few days to portray themselves as victims of a media harassment campaign, particularly heaping blame on Alex Jones and his crew for being persistent in demanding answers from the organization. The people of Hardin need to understand that the last people to wake up to being scammed are those who have been targeted by the scam, known as the “mark”. In this case, the media is their friend, not their enemy and people in the town need to come to this realization before it’s too late.
This attempt to shift the emphasis of the story has also served to distract from the core issue behind the whole saga – that Hardin is close to turning over a $27 million dollar detention camp as well as responsibility for policing the town, to a career criminal and a convicted fraudster who Wyoming authorities still have an arrest warrant out for. This fact alone should torpedo the whole deal and ensure APF never realize their agenda to implement similar schemes in dozens more towns and cities across America.
Two Rivers Authority board members will meet today to discuss the contract with APPF to man the $27 million dollar detention facility in Hardin. The meeting will take place at the Hardin City Hall from 3pm and is open to the public.
Watch a clip from KURL 8 News above.
Mysterious Private Security Firm Gets Control Of Empty Jail In Small Montana Town
A shadowy private security company that has no known clients but claims to have helped foreign governments combat terrorism and will protect anything from cruise ships to Pakistani convoys has taken over a jail in a small Montana town, with plans to build a law enforcement training facility on the property.
The state legislature is looking into the matter and residents of Hardin, MT, were alarmed last week when executives from the firm, American Police Force, showed up in the town, which does not have its own police department, with Mercedes SUVs bearing “City Of Hardin Police Department” decals.
And the town has had to tamp down reports on conspiracy Web sites that APF plans to impose experimental H1N1 vaccines on residents under threat of quarantine in the jail.
Under a lease signed with Hardin, APF, based in Santa Ana, California, and incorporated just six months ago, is now in control of a 400-bed detention facility the town built a few years ago but never used, a town official confirmed to TPMmuckraker today. The town reportedly stands to make over $2 million per year.
Just what American Police Force plans to do with the detention facility, which comes with 50 acres of land in the small south-central Montana town, is unclear. Also not clear is who, if anyone, APF plans to put in the jail. (Watch a video tour of the jail here.)
Hardin, which is in default on the bonds it used to build the jail, recently undertook an unsuccessful campaign to make the jail a new home for Gitmo detainees. When that failed, the town turned to APF
The 10-year contract that is now awaiting final approval of lawyers gives APF the option of building a training facility, said Al Peterson, spokesman for the Hardin economic development authority. APF has said it plans to invest $30 million in the site, including $17M in the training facility, where law enforcement will get sniper training and learn “DNA analysis” skills.
And where is American Police Force getting the money for this venture? Company spokeswoman Becky Shay — until about a week ago the Billings Gazette reporter covering APF — says they are no plans to answer that question. She did not respond to a request for comment.
The matter has attracted the attention of the Montana state legislature, which is seeking more information about the arrangement between Hardin and APF. The committee that deals with legal matters will send a letter to Hardin officials to get more details on the deal, Representative Bob Ebinger (D) tells TPMmuckraker.
“Because of the apparent secretiveness of this, it gives the far right and far left to come up with all kinds of ideas. That’s why I’d like to see some clarification,” Ebinger says.
Peterson, the Hardin official, says the controversy sparked last week when APF executives appeared in black SUVs marked “City Of Hardin Police Department” was a misunderstanding of an act of goodwill by the company. The decals were taken off within the day, he says.
Peterson hopes lawyers will approve the contract by next week, and at that point, a press conference is planned and the contract will be made available. Asked if he knew about the background of APF and what they do, Peterson replied: “No comment.”
Visitors to APF’s Blackwater-esque Web site listen to Ravel’s Boléro and peruse a menu of services that include: harbor patrol threat interdiction, interdicting terror activity, interdicting weapons of mass destruction, international airline security, cheating spouse investigations, polygraph testing, kidnapping response, weapons sales including “Nuclear/Biological/Chemical (WMD),” and, finally, private investigative services that draw on “vast global network of highly ranked officers and government officials.”
APF’s double-headed eagle coat of arms appears to be the same as Serbia’s Prince Aleksandar Karageorgevich, Raw Story points out. And the AP reported that a lawyer for APF describes the firm as “a fledgling spin-off of a major security firm founded in 1984.”
Late Update: Yet another strange development: This page on APF’s Web site brags about “our extensive tactical firearms training facility, the U.S. Training Center.” But the U.S. Training Center is part of Xe, nee Blackwater. And Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke told us there is no affiliation between Xe and APF.
What is the American Police Force and what is it doing in Montana?
A secretive California outfit called the American Police Force is taking over the 2-year-old, never-used prison in Hardin, Mont., that was briefly considered a possible spot for Guantanamo prisoners.
The story has many twists and turns. We recommend you read The Billings Gazette article for a primer on the story. KULR TV, of Billings, Mont., The Missoulian, and Talking Points Memo are also on the case.APF’s website, which has been periodically unavailable (click here for a recent cache of their site), says it “leverages the talent and expertise of their extensive global network to provide local, regional, and national security solutions to the United States Government and other clients who are in need of customized private investigative services.”
Here’s its website pitch:
Whether you are suspicious about a cheating spouse or concerned about a personal threat, APF’s team will employ their experience to fulfill your domestic investigation needs.
In one odd twist, Becky Shay, a reporter for the Billings Gazette who has reported extensively on the Hardin Prison, quit her job and is now a spokeswoman for the group in Hardin. Except that she now mainly has “no comment” when pressed about what is going on.
Some other unusual wrinkles:
– Mercedes SUVs belonging to APF began showing up recently in town with magnetic decals that said “City of Hardin Police Department,” but later removed them.
– APF, which has mentioned using the facility for military training, refuses to offer any specifics until after a contract to take over the prison is signed.
– Albert Peterson, vice-president of Hardin’s tax-supported economic development arm that built the prison two years ago says people will be “shocked” when they learn the high-quality of the person who will be running the operation, The Gazette reports. “I did my background checks and my homework, and they’re legit,” he said, but won’t reveal the name.
–Peterson says APF hopes to begin filling the prisoner with inmates early next year, but neither he nor APF will say where the prisoners are coming from.
– The Gazette quotes local officials as saying “they have reason to believe” that APF is a spinoff of a “much larger security company that has contracts around the world.”
– Montana Rep. Bob Ebinger has joined other lawmakers in seeking questions from Hardin officials about the unusual deal. “Always when things are secretive, you end up getting everybody — on both the right and the left — making suppositions about what’s going on,” Ebinger, a Democrat, tells the Great Falls Tribune.
— But KULR says APF’s founder, Michael Hilton, has a extensive criminal record and has “spent six years in a California prison.” The Missoulian says court records show he also uses the aliases Midrag Ilia Dokovitch, Midrag Ilia Dokovich and Michael Miodrag.– And, for what it’s worth, the APF logo is almost identical to the symbol on the state flag of Serbia.
(Photo of Albert Peterson by Matthew Brown, AP)